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One Month After the Earthquake, Japan Hustles to Keep Students on Track

Two-thirds of schools in the ravaged northeastern coastal region are destroyed or damaged, but students will be heading back to class next week.

A little over a month after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster, it's back to school time in Japan. The island nation's school year began in the first week of April, and officials plan to have students living in some of the most affected coastal areas hitting the books as early as April 20. If it sounds like too much too soon for surviving students who are surely suffering from post-traumatic stress and living in shelters, officials say getting back into a routine will help children regain a sense of normalcy.

Another reason for getting the education system up and running in tsunami ravaged areas is the high academic expectations set for Japanese students. The nation's high stakes university entrance examination process is well-known for its intensity, meaning students who fall behind even slightly are at risk of not passing the test, and thus not gaining admission to school.

For younger students, since repeating a grade is pretty much unheard of in Japan, delaying the start of the school year will almost certainly mean they'll also fall behind their peers. To keep that from happening, some teachers have even been assigning homework to kids living in shelters.

Psychologists and school counselors from across Japan are being trained and sent to the hardest hit areas in order to address mental health and other issues facing students. However, the decision to start school so quickly isn't without some serious logistical challenges.

Two-thirds of schools in the hardest hit coastal regions, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, were damaged or completely destroyed. Okawa Elementary in the city of Ishinomaki, suffered severe structural damage to the main building and other parts of the campus were completely swept away by the tsunami.

Far more tragic, however, is the loss of life the school community suffered. Seventy-four out of 108 students were killed in the disaster and only one teacher survived. For the remaining 34 students, the school year starts on April 21, a mere two weeks later than usual. Students from Okawa and other similarly affected schools will simply be moved to structurally sound campuses. Students and their families from the area surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant have already been permanently relocated to areas outside the danger zone.

Overcrowding in the remaining schools is sure to be a problem, especially since most schools are also being used as shelters. The educational road ahead for these kids affected by the disaster definitely isn't going to be easy, but you have to admire the national push to get things up and running for them again so soon.

photo (cc) via Flickr user manduhsaurus

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